As students and teachers prepare for fall, these timely books explore the ways in which education both fails and finds us. As each memoir here shows, we can shape the future of our world simply by rethinking the way we learn.
Learning by Heart
Tony Wagner, senior research fellow at the Learning Policy Institute and a longtime education specialist, examines the ways in which the structures of American education fail to respect the individuality of each student in his memoir, Learning by Heart: An Unconventional Education. After being kicked out of several boarding schools and failing out of college twice, Wagner began to pursue learning not for the sake of earning an “education” but rather for the love of knowledge. This passion sent him on a journey to discover how he could provide that same opportunity to students educated in more classical environments. Traveling far from his New England home to study in Mexico, Wagner eventually returned to America’s most hallowed and traditional halls at Harvard University to challenge widely accepted paradigms of learning.
These books represent the best of what education could offer, if we would only believe in the power of each person’s individual story.
Readers who are frustrated by conventional schooling will recognize Wagner’s fascinating narrative as their own. However, it’s worth noting that Wagner’s journey ends positively thanks in part to his proximity to certain societal privileges. Though he tries to acknowledge this privilege at points throughout the memoir, it’s not difficult for the reader to imagine how this story might differ if it were told from the perspective of someone with access to fewer resources and opportunities.
Why Did I Get a B?
In contrast, Why Did I Get a B? And Other Mysteries We’re Discussing in the Faculty Lounge addresses issues of disparity in education and chronicles author Shannon Reed’s growth from a traditionally successful middle-class student to an actively passionate teacher with an expansive background in preschool, middle school, high school and college classrooms. Having come from a family of educators, Reed describes her movement toward teaching as an inevitable call. “After nineteen years as a teacher, I can no longer shrug helplessly, pretending I don’t know how I ended up in this career,” she writes. “If you are what you do, then it is what I am.” Her writing honors her struggles while also making fun of her own misconceptions about teaching.
Divided into comical essays and sincere meditations, Why Did I Get a B? provides an accurate depiction of how many teachers feel about their careers. Educators will appreciate the particular brand of nerdy sarcasm that pervades Reed’s book—and they may even recognize it as one of the quirks teachers must develop to survive in the world of education. However, anyone not in that world will enjoy the book, too, as an honest look into how teachers’ brains work to solve problems and do what’s best for their kids, while also just trying to stay alive.
This sentiment also undergirds Kid Quixotes: A Group of Students, Their Teacher, and the One-Room School Where Everything Is Possible, which details author Stephen Haff’s personal experience with bipolar depression alongside his efforts to construct a creative and individualized learning environment for kids in Brooklyn’s Bushwick neighborhood. Kid Quixotes weaves together the narrative of Haff’s teaching career and the stories of his students, who are largely members of the Latinx immigrant community. These kids, who seek solace in Haff’s Still Waters in a Storm after-school program, translate Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote from its original Spanish into English and then into their own interpretative play over the course of five years. This process of reading, writing and translating allows Haff to uncover the complexities of each child’s life story, and he encourages them to bring those personal experiences to life through the play.
Each of Haff’s students speaks out from the pages of this book and implores readers to hear their voice. In particular, Haff spotlights the voice of a young girl named Sarah, the “Kid Quixote” of Still Waters, who speaks prophetically both to the other children and to the reader. After she tells her first story at Still Waters, Haff remarks that the other children were “stunned, as if they had just met God.” The reader also feels this moment’s transcendence, which continues throughout the book.
One of the final sequences in Kid Quixotes describes the response of a writer who had been invited to work with the students at Still Waters. After her encounter, she said she viewed these students differently, seeing them as “intellectual equals.” Haff’s work at Still Waters, Reed’s reflections and Wagner’s memoir all ask us to do this same work. By respecting students as equals with something to offer, rather than as receptacles for information, we allow their powerful stories to change our broken world. These books represent the best of what education could offer, if we would only believe in the power of each person’s individual story.